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Disaster Mobilities: Staying in the Trouble

Katrina Petersen

01 June, 2015

At Lancaster University, the Centre for Mobilities Research has been working on multiple initiatives in Disaster Mobilities. Our approaches combine STS theory with Mobilities Studies, Workplace Studies, and Design Research to better understand how the (im)mobilities of people, materials, information, and ideas about and during disasters produce ethical and social matters of concern and how these might be collectively addressed. Three projects are working concurrently: BRIDGE – Bridging Resources and agencies in large-scale emergency management, SecInCoRe - Secure Dynamic Cloud for Information, Communication and Resource Interoperability based on Pan-European Disaster Inventory, and Children, Young People and Disasters: Recovery and Resilience.

These projects leverage STS theory to examine the production of knowledge in situ, for example in on-the-ground situation reports, walk-along tours that explore broader environmental understandings, and co-design of information technologies. These initiatives enable us to intervene in STS by

  1. Engaging directly with the communities they are studying, aiming to affect change from within, which requires an expansion of STS theory. 
  2. Being self-reflexive in our practice, as we walk ourselves out of our comfort zones and engage ourselves as actors with responsibilities beyond academia in ‘the open’, ‘where what is to come is not yet … and might still be otherwise’, allowing us to ‘stay in the trouble’ (Haraway 2010), where ethical dilemmas are not easily resolved and reflective practice engenders insight.
  3. Expanding conceptions of expertise and collaborative/collective research and experimentation.
  4. Bringing theory into direct dialog with policy, design, social and organisational innovation with the hope to make change.

Using disasters as an ambiguity we meet in weekly ‘stand-up’ meetings--a method we have poached from agile software development--to interrogate our practical activities, intellectual challenges and interactions. Each project probes those moments of ambiguity to better understand the implications of theoretical choices in analysis and to open up our own assumptions of what seems obvious and new. 

Children, young people and disasters, recovery and resilience

The group working on Children, Young People and Disasters, Recovery and Resilience, explores what it means to live with uncertainty (rather than just seeing uncertainty as a form of knowledge) by going into schools to work with children who have lived through severe flooding in their neighborhoods. To step into their understandings of uncertainty of the children, they go with them to walk around the formerly flooded environment and create artistic expressions to explore their experiences with flooding. This research team is trying to understand the ‘long process’ that is the crisis ‘event’, as well as how this process is lived in an intermeshed way through the landscape, memories, and emotions.


                                                                                      Figure 1: Walking around along a flood zone during a workshop with flood-affected young people (11-15yrs) in the Thames Valley


Figure 2: (Re)making what flooding meant from workshops with flood-affected children (6-12yrs) in Humberside


BRDIGE and SecInCoRe projects

BRIDGE and SecInCoRe explore social, ethical, legal, and cultural issues around technology in multi-agency collaboration in crisis management and response with a view to define and design ‘better’ socio-technical futures. The projects aim to work in the belly of the beast and directly engage with those who shape disaster communication and interoperability, such as emergency response professionals, civic volunteers, information technology developers in academic and industrial settings. Researching and writing together, the aim is to make, experimentally implement, and evaluate new technologies.


Figure 3: Following along a disaster exercise documenting communication and information exchange practices.

Figure 4: Using a design prototype in a disaster response exercise to make visible how they change practice and the ethical, legal, and social implications of the design decisions.

Experimenting in such a hands-on manner with disclosive ethics investigations and pro-active policy interventions, both these projects strive to produce engaged STS that engenders new forms of interdisciplinary dialog within multi-national teams of engineers, social scientists, legal and security experts, technology designers, and emergency responders. Sometimes this dialogue puts us directly in the middle of debates about socio-technological responsibility.

Figure 5: Co-designing and playing with prototypes and socio-technical future by reliving past disasters. One of these workshops, for example, lead to this exchange:

Finnish Responder: What happened in Schiphol with the air crash; they used TETRA, which was designed as an emergency response tool and it failed because of design not technology.

Belgium Responder: No it’s not TETRA that failed; it’s users that failed, because they are not using it well.

As they work with such diverse actors, these projects purposefully wander into situations where all involved trying to make sense of their socio-technological relationships, highlighting the ambiguities.

The risks, challenges, and opportunities of vastly extended capabilities of information sharing become foregrounded for analysis in ways that allow distributed responsibilities and accountabilities to be expressed, contested and addressed. Potential stakeholders are partners in the design process and there is a conscious orientation to design for ‘design after design’. Thinking and acting through STS in this way, our research aims to bring socio-technical futures into design practices in ways that avoid the trope of “designing for a user”.

Figure 6: A prototype disaster communication technology engaged with in a workshop

Putting STS theory into practice

To work with the complexities of ethical, legal, and social entanglements between human, technology, and world that STS theory highlights, all three projects facilitate collective, experimental, embodied engagement and experience. Collaborative research might mean wandering with children in fields (and the challenges of recording those interactions in winds that are rip right through sensitive microphones), or it might mean co-design workshops where emergency responders try to use technical prototypes to see what new and unforeseen ways of working might be possible, and what positive and negative possibilities emerge as a result of new assemblages of people, technologies, and practices, or it might involve run-along observations with emergency responders during exercises to observe them in-action.

By immersing research in the world, we are responsible for change and have to revisit again and again our own assumptions of value, our approach to the application of theory, and the application of worldly insights and experiences to theory, as well as being accountable to the expectations of colleagues and stakeholders at various scales of research ‘impact’. As we learn to work together and translate disciplinary and cultural conceptions, we are also developing skills to develop theories, methods, and design concepts. Together, these projects are deepening dialogs about motivations, ambitions and methods that can help enlighten theory that examines future-making, and the configurations of human-technology-world and ethico-onto-epistemology and politics in flux, change, and action. They also aim to interfere at the theory-practice nexus.


Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway. Durham: Duke University Press.

Haraway, D. J. 2010. Staying with the Trouble: Xenoecologies of Home for Companions in the Contested Zones. Cultural Anthropology Online. [Accessed 1st April 2015]

Team Members of the Three Projects


Monika Buscher

Michael Liegl

Lisa Wood

Sung-Yueh Perng



Monika Buscher

Katrina Petersen

Catherine Easton

Xaroula Kerasidou

Rachel Oliphant


Children, Young People and Disasters: Recovery and Resilience 

Maggie Mort

Alison Lloyd Williams

Marion Walker

Amanda Bingley

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Backchannels / Projects

Descriptions of current work—the makings and doings—of STS scholars across the globe. This includes individual work, as well as collaborations between / with academics, practitioners, and policy makers.